by Kwame Dawes
Great Britain: Peepal Tree Press, 2010
In a way, Bivouac is a map of coping strategies – touching rather than describing the struggle of man to come to terms with the past, while accepting the consequences of that for one’s own mortality. Ferron’s struggle is with the universal problem that overthrowing the father means that he too shall someday pass. Much like the Jamaica he stumbles through, Ferron is overwhelmed by the past, by an unstable present in perpetual transition, be an instability that becomes as oppressive as stagnation, and by the bittersweet threat of change in the future. Ultimately, Ferron’s road towards any future whatsoever goes through the past - through his father, through his ancestors, through history, and through the most mystical and mundane twin hearts of Jamaica - a duality that Ferron must learn to find in himself, and to find happiness in, if he is to survive his trauma.
The term “bivouac” commonly refers to a kind of shelter. Appropriately, Ferron has a conflicted relationship with shelter: though he desires it, indulging in a secret hiding place where he may go to die at any time, he is incapable of giving it, providing little sincere comfort to those around him. For this reason, Ferron is difficult to like for very long, though this doesn’t make him uninteresting. Ferron son, however, pales in comparison to brief glimpses of Ferron senior, who appears periodically through his unpublished notes. The author of these notes is difficult to reconcile with the ghost that the son recalls, a man who is old and apathetic beyond his years, whose death may finally come as a relief. In Ferron past present and future (should the son choose to or find the momentum to move forward) and through his eyes, Dawes constructs a social map of Jamaica toppling over time from a time of political fruitfulness in revolution, to Ferron’s daily exhaustion, disinterest, impotence and guilt, where the decay of a weary ghost lingers over the family and breeds only emotional stagnation. Perhaps then another definition of bivouac is relevant here - a living ant nest made of workers who protect their queen and her progeny with their own bodies. This is the shelter Ferron must come to understand if he is to ever come back to a place of giving shelter as well as seeking it: if Ferron can find shelter based on mutuality, a shelter that is fundamentally living, rather than escaping into death, he may have a hope. Whether Dawes provides this in the end is ultimately up to the individual to decide.
But Dawes’ story is not about a decision to live or die, or about an answer to the past, or a promise for the future; instead, Davies novel is a poetic, patchwork of waiting, of sliding into the past, casting into the future, but mostly of slow, sensorial limbo in the present. Dawes` Jamaica is sometimes sultry and sexual, rich in sounds and smells, though that same sensuality is consistently punctured by the harsh realities of traffic and impotence, corruption, rape, and clinics. Romance here belongs in the realm of imagination, where a mundane death may be part of a political intrigue, where mourning become a mystic crossover, where Ferron’s slippage into his father through unpublished transcripts becomes a time travel that bleeds them together across generations.
Despite its grim story line, Bivouac experiments with pleasure. Though initially frustrating, its tendency to surface in new locations and times becomes engaging rather than alienating, letting a little magic into Ferron’s insistence that life remain mundane. Dawes seems to disagree with Ferron; his narrative takes on a rhythm that is more supernatural than the rhythm of life Ferron might want - or be able to - believe in. Dawes exercises significant stylistic restrain (though it may be Ferron who limits him) so that his flourishes appear like musical interludes, culminating in a final explosion of style and imagination that overwhelms the initial questions the story raises. Indulging in absolute memory that is both past and vividly present, Dawes does finally bring Ferron home, answering the story’s mystery in an unexpected way.
Amanda Tripp is studying English at the Masters level at McGill University, having completed her undergraduate work in Cultural Studies where she specialized in genre and gender studies in cinema. She is currently working on suppressed Family Gothic narratives in contemporary American film.
Volunteers for Issue 8
For copy-editing this issue of MTLS thanks:
- Amanda Tripp
- Carmel Purkis
- Rosel Kim
- Julia Cooper
- Lequanne Collins-Bacchus
MTLS is grateful to Jean-Pierre Houde for his hard work on web management.